It was about star power

The two Spaniards, Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya, charmed their way through the event. While one brought in a tantalising mix of teenage gawkiness and maturity, in the case of the other it was looks and loyalty that did the trick, writes Nandita Sridhar.

The 2007 Chennai Open rode on the beef-content, looks and the charm of two Spaniards. It mattered little that the quality of tennis on Centre Court took a while to pick up. And it also mattered little that one was going through a slight dip in form, while the other was way past his prime. There was little room and time for such nitpicking when the city was privileged enough to welcome and host Rafael Nadal and Carlos Moya for the weeklong tennis fest.

Our fixation for stars, especially those from beyond our shores, is deep-rooted, and has a lot to do with our culture. We love to be loved by those who are not one of us. We love it when they love us, our culture and the warmth we show them. We go out of our way to make them feel comfortable and make sure that they would want to come back because that's how and what we are.

The Chennai Open has used the famed Indian hospitality and warmth to bring in more players and spread the word about how well they are treated, which is one of the reasons why some of them keep coming.

As far as sporting superstars go, having very few of our own makes us look outward. Unlike cricket that can afford to survive on national sentimentalism alone, despite the dips in performances, tennis tournaments need the big names to click. With a lack of substantial local participation, bringing in a Nadal or a Moya was mandatory to woo the crowds. With four tennis tournaments being played around the globe at the same time, Nadal's decision to come to Chennai made it all the more valuable for the crowds.

The 20-year-old Spaniard is endearingly colourful without meaning and trying to be so. His characteristics, his quirks and his intimidating on court behaviour are not extensions of his personality, but his alter ego. He makes up for his lack of abundance in natural talent with his indefatigable energy and effort on court.

"When I am playing a tournament and on court, I think I am the number two because that gives me confidence. But when I am at home in Mallorca with my family and friends, I behave like a normal 20-year-old guy," Nadal said.

He walked onto the court, waving to the crowds, fully aware that they were there just to see him play. Those were no cursory waves just to get them excited.

Nadal was always greeted with a roar and the sight of numerous kids, stretching out their arms in anticipation of a few seconds of scrawling, was extraordinary. The Spaniard did not treat those requesting for his autographs like swarms of flies waiting to be pushed away. "I always try to be nice with everybody because everybody wants to get it," he answered when asked if demands for autographs irritated him.

"The people here are very nice, they are very supportive," he said when asked if he liked Chennai. He was polite to the media despite having to answer a number of similar questions that were differently worded. He greeted the journalists with a "hello everybody", even when only a monosyllabic drawl was expected from him. His sentences might have lacked cohesion, as he lacked the fluency in English, but even through the butchered vocabulary one could see a 20-year-old trying his utmost to deal with fame.

Nadal's countryman, Carlos Moya was treated and greeted with the same shouts and chants like always. The Spaniard's love for the city has a lot, if not everything, to do with his success. His visits to the city have always been preceded by unprecedented media hype though his game has dipped considerably. "It is just fantastic here. In Spain, football is the most popular sport and I do not get as much warmth there as I get here," Moya said.

Nadal might have moved the spotlight slightly from Moya this time, but the two-time Chennai Open champion was sure of his popularity to be unruffled. Crowds love any show of faithfulness. Moya's visits to the city year after year have only reinforced the need to support him.

Together, the two Spaniards charmed their way through the event, till they were forced to face inspired opponents. One brought in a tantalising mix of teenage gawkiness and maturity while in the case of the other it was looks and loyalty (donating his entire prize money in 2005 won him more hearts) that did the trick.

Their off-court appeal might have shifted the focus away from the seriousness of the tennis. Most people would have loved to see Nadal or Moya struggle their way to the title rather than the relatively unknown Xavier Malisse who played better tennis. Sport is a lot about personalities. Sometimes the power of one's name and personality tends to reduce the significance of his game.

But that doesn't mean that the tennis lovers were absent. The connoisseurs were there, applauding Xavier Malisse's brilliant tactics against Nadal, but so were the gapers. A huge bunch of the gapers chose to stay on till late that Sunday night (January 7, 2007) outside the VIP Lounge, with the tournament having just been through its course. Nadal stepped out to a roar, greeted by the sight of a blurring number of autograph books (how many fans could he oblige?). He stepped into his car and zipped away, leaving behind a sort of hysteria not seen in the tournament after Boris Becker came in 1998. There's no power quite like star power.